Potato Power: How a Vegetable Captured the Hearts of Two Generations
By Sonya Bateman
When you consider the basis for popular children’s toys, you’re likely to think of people (Barbie or G. I. Joe), automobiles (Hot Wheels), animals (Pound Puppies, My Little Pony), or building materials (Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets). Very few children’s toys are based on vegetables. If kids won’t eat them, what would possess them to play with them; at least, when they aren’t at the dinner table? However, back in the 1950s an inventor named George Lerner had a vision to transform vegetables into beloved children’s playthings—and he succeeded with the introduction of Mr. Potato Head.
In the beginning, the odds were stacked against Mr. Potato Head’s success. With the resource conservation struggles of World War II still fresh in the public mind at the start of the decade, toy manufacturers resisted the original concept of Mr. Potato Head as a waste of good food. Lerner designed Mr. Potato Head as a set of plastic facial features intended for use with a real potato, or other vegetables or fruits.
When a cereal company offered him $5,000 for the design, it seemed Mr. Potato Head was destined for a short existence as a premium giveaway. But Lerner knew the toy had greater potential, and after meeting with a New England manufacturer, he bought back the rights from the cereal company for $7,000.
1952 was the first year of production for Mr. Potato Head, from a little family-owned toy company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, called Hasbro, Inc. That year, the toy made history as the very first toy advertised on television. At its inception, the 28 facial features came with a Styrofoam shape (but it just wasn’t as much fun as a real potato).
Mr. Potato Head was so successful for Hasbro, earning over $4 million in just a few months, that 1953 saw wedding bells for the celebrated spud as Mrs. Potato Head hit toy store shelves. The potato family grew to include brother and sister Spud and Yam, several pets, and even a Potato Family car and trailer. By 1964, Mr. Potato Head acquired the handsome plastic body he has today - and the rest is history.
It may seem odd for a plastic vegetable to have gained such notoriety, but Mr. Potato Head has become a cultural icon. The toy is the embodiment of childhood wackiness, and we just can’t seem to get enough of him. At times, Mr. Potato Head seems as solid as any celebrity, and he has been honored by prominent institutions on many an occasion.
Did you know…
1985: Boise, Idaho—the potato capital of the country—received four write-in mayoral votes for Mr. Potato Head.
1987: Mr. Potato Head “quit smoking” when the plastic pipe was removed from his parts assemblage, and became the official spokes-potato for the annual American Cancer Society’s “Great American Smokeout” campaign.
1992: For his 40th anniversary, Mr. Potato Head received the Presidential Sports Award in a ceremony on the White House lawn.
1996: The happy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, helped out the League of Women Voters by serving in their “Get Out and Vote” campaign.
2000: Mr. Potato Head became an official government symbol when he was named Ambassador for the Rhode Island State Tourism Board.
2002: To celebrate 50 years of potato magic, Mr. Potato Head was granted official membership to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
Though the popularity of Mr. Potato Head has remained steady since its introduction in 1952, the toy experienced an explosive resurgence in 1995 with the wild success of the Disney-Pixar Studios production of the movie Toy Story, starring the Spud Man himself, voiced by comedian Don Rickles. The movie spawned a whole new crop of Mr. Potato Head products, including ball caps, key chains, mugs, Christmas ornaments, and boxer shorts. The equally successful Toy Story 2 released in 1998 brought in Mrs. Potato Head, featuring the voice of Estelle Harris.
Whether you can recall puncturing potatoes with plastic eyes and ears, or picking up a brand new plastic Mr. Potato Head for your own little ones, this multi-faceted vegetable has made an enormous impact on the imaginations of the American public. And to think, the Super Spud nearly went the way of the cereal box prize.
Byline: Sonya Bateman is a freelance writer based in Mexico, New York… yes, Mexico. She missed the fifties due to a lack of planning on the part of her parents, but thinks Mr. Potato Head is one cool cat.
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